Conducting the Interview
Once you've settled on three potential contractors, arrange a time for each one to take a look at the project. You're looking for someone with a good reputation who has the skills and experience to deliver a quality job at a fair price, sure, but that's not all. The contractor and his crew will be spending a lot of time in your house, so ask a lot of questions.
Ask about anything you don't understand, including terminology. He might refer to "bullnose" or "ogee" when discussing countertop edges, and if you don't know the difference you might not get the shape you want. Ask about things you do understand, too — it's a great way to assess the scope of someone's knowledge. Gather information in one interview and use it in the next. If Contractor Jones says, "I'd replace that trim rather than trying to repair it," ask Contractor Smith, "Do you think it's worth repairing that trim, or should we just replace it?" There may be more than one right answer in a given situation, but the response will tell you if the contractor has the training, experience, and judgment to make decisions you'll feel comfortable with.
Ask any contractor you're considering for at least five references; contact at least three. ("But ignore the first one," says TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey. "It's usually the brother-in-law.") The closer the projects are in scope and style to your own, the better. Get previous clients to give you details of the contractor's dependability and workmanship, how he handled problems, whether the budget stayed intact, and if work progressed on or close to schedule. Bottom-line question: Would you hire the same person again?
Assessing the Bids
The low bid isn't likely to be top-quality construction, and the high bid isn't a guarantee of the best work. Some contractors submit a high bid if they don't really want the job or don't have time to come up with a more accurate proposal. When hiring people to work on his own house, TOH general contractor Tom Silva generally tosses out the lowest and the highest bids, figuring that the ones in the middle are the most realistic.
Discuss up front how the contractor expects to be paid. Payments for large projects are typically spread out over three to six intervals, based on various completion benchmarks. The first payment is a deposit and seals the deal. The last is usually 10 to 15 percent of the total, delivered upon your approval of the project. Beware of anyone who demands cash payments; you won't have any proof of how much you've handed over. A contractor who asks for his full fee up front is probably a crook.
Creating a Contract (and Yes, You Do Need One)
Every project, no matter how small, should be covered by a contract. It should include the basics — start date, end date, cost — as well as a clause stating the work will conform to all applicable building codes. The project description should be as detailed as possible. For example, a deck contract might specify: "Demolish old deck. Build new 10-by-12 deck." Better would be: "Remove old deck, dispose of debris. Excavate site as needed, install new footings, posts, and handrails to code. Decking to be 2x6 cedar, custom knotty grade, nailed per code and finished with two coats of penetrating sealant."
10 Essential Questions You Need Answered
The bigger the project, the more answers you need up front. Here's a checklist of 10 essential questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line.
How long will it take? A good contractor can tell you when he can start and when he can finish, weather permitting. Find out if he's working on multiple jobs at the same time, or if he will have to hire unfamiliar subs to handle the additional business. A schedule stuffed with too many projects may leave yours without his full attention.
How many projects like this have you done before? Whether it's a whole-house remodel or just a built-in bookcase, an experienced contractor has already faced the typical problems and knows how to solve them. If he's been working in the area for a while, he's also more likely to know about local building codes and customs, and where to get the best materials forthe most competitive prices.
Who's keeping an eye on my project? Someone has to coordinate and review the work of the subcontractors while it's going on, not afterward, when corrections may be impractical (and surely will be more expensive). Find out who will be the daily eyes on your job. That person should have the authority and willingness to resolve minor complaints, as well as be able to communicate effectively with you.
Will you obtain all necessary permits? If a contractor wants you to pull permits for any part of the job, it may cause problems down the line. Some towns require that the person who gets the permit is the one responsible for the work. Also, a handful of places, including New York City and North Carolina, have established funds to reimburse homeowner losses caused by faulty workmanship. The money may not be available if you pulled your own permit.
Have you worked with my architect before? Working with an architect calls for a level of cooperation that not every general contractor enjoys, especially if the architect is serving as a project manager. An established relationship between the two can help move the project along, whereas a frosty one can sink it.
How will you protect my house and my family during construction? If the roof has to be removed to add a second story, exposed rooms must be protected from the weather. What would you rather hear: "We'll throw a tarp over it" or "We'll use 6-mil reinforced sheeting supported on a temporary framework and secure the tarp with battens nailed to the edge of the roof"?
>> Change Orders
What happens if I change my mind about something? All the details that looked so great on paper might not look as good when the project begins to take shape. Conscientious builders use written change orders to manage the process. The order describes the change and what it will cost, and both you and the builder sign it. Be wary of anyone who says, "We usually just figure it all out at the end."
Do you carry liability insurance and worker's compensation insurance? If a worker is injured on your job, he or she should be covered by the contractor's insurance, not your homeowner's policy. Check with state or local authorities and find out what the minimum coverages are. Ask to see proof of insurance, such as a certificate with a current date. If you have any doubts, check with the carrier directly to see if the policy is in force.
Do you guarantee your workmanship? Some builders consider themselves done after the final inspection. Others will come back to take care of any problems that crop up in the months following completion. You can also specify a time period for minor follow-up repairs in the contract.
How can I reach you? If you notice a problem, the best chance to resolve it is to contact the builder immediately. If the builder isn't on site every day, will you end up leaving message after message on his voicemail? Find out if he's reachable by cell phone. And after your first meeting, try the number to thank him for the visit — and to double-check that it works.
What to Do If Things Go Wrong
Many "problems" are simply misunderstandings that can be resolved through discussion. If that doesn't work, put your concerns in writing and ask the contractor for a written response. Consult your contract. A good contract will not only specify materials and standards for workmanship but will also note how disputes should be handled — for instance, by an independent mediator or through a more formal process of binding arbitration. If no dispute resolution method is spelled out, contact the local contractor licensing authority and ask about filing a formal complaint.